In 1953, Pastor Lawrence T. Holman preached a sermon entitled, “Life is Not a Dress Rehearsal.” It’s unclear whether he came up with this phrase – it is perhaps most hilariously attributed to Friedrich Nietzsche – but it is now ubiquitous, being ideally suited to be a meme for social media. It is meant to convey a sense of urgency and zest for life. After all, this is all you’ve got. When used by Christians, the urgency is provided by the notion that this is your one chance to get it right before facing God’s judgment, the ladder or the coal chute. But I must disagree; life is all rehearsal.
Some may find this view depressing, but life is a series of small deaths. We lose and we grieve. The good news is that each death provides the possibility of new life. In fact, death is necessary for new life. Whether we find that new life, that rebirth, depends on how we grieve the loss. As Richard Rohr says, “If we don’t transform our pain, we will transmit it.” If we do not grieve well, our rebirth will be a diminished version of what came before, more angry, more fearful, more closed off. Each of these deaths is a rehearsal for that next rebirth into new life.
As a church, we do this on an annual scale. Ironically, it begins with an ending. We will soon celebrate the season of Advent, which is the end of the story, Jesus’ triumphant return and the end of all things. But Advent ends with the birth of Jesus. Then the death of Jesus in Lent and rebirth at Easter and back to the end and the beginning again, over and over. We rehearse this cycle each year so that maybe we can get it right eventually.
Eventually, there will be a big death. Most of us will see it coming and, when we do, we’ll fall into the patterns we have rehearsed. We will die as we have lived. If we live in fear, regret, and bitterness – if every rebirth we have ever known brought us to that place – we will have no reason to believe that the big death is any different. I’ve been pretty clear about the fact that I don’t believe in hell, but I can understand the fear. Many of us spend our lives living in a hell of our own creation. Can we really expect that death will bring relief?
So we practice. Done right, we get good at dying. What does that mean? I’m still figuring that out, still practicing, but I can offer a couple of things.
First, it means confidence that there is something beautiful on the other side of death. You can develop that vision however you need to, but you need to know it. Again, I have been pretty clear that I don’t believe in a personal afterlife, but I still have an idea of something beautiful on the other side of death. As I said on Sunday, I’ve lately been captivated by this vision of a tree dying in the forest and being reabsorbed into the environment, feeding that which once fed it. I even wonder if there is some persistence of memory that is redistributed into a cosmic knowing. I see this in my life, in the little deaths, where something long thought dead suddenly rises to the surface and bears new fruit.
Second, it means knowing we are not alone. Of course, there is the simple fact of experience; everyone goes through this, so there should be a great reservoir to draw from. But we all grieve differently, so the pool of helpful people shrinks a little bit. Because we’re all trying to figure this out, all trying to figure out how to die well, some grieving partners might be better than others. The best will not try to fix it or erase it, but will just sit in it with us. This, for me, is who God is. We are often encouraged to ask God for things, for some resolution to a problem, or to lift burdens off of us, to make a problem go away. But prayer is really resting in God’s presence. God will sit with us through the pain. Part of our rehearsal is cultivating our sensitivity to God’s presence, even in our pain.
Sunday’s service was one way of rehearsing death. We grieve those who we have lost, celebrate the beauty of their lives, and let that beauty become a part of us. It required vulnerability and honesty. I was honored to share that space with all of you. Thank you.